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Washington Observes the Influence of Obama Adviser Valerie Jarrett
By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 15, 2009
The nation’s mayors felt left out in the weeks after President Obama’s election. He had met with the governors, but not them. Then, to their surprise, he picked a non-mayor to head his new office of urban affairs. The unhappiness only grew as the president’s economic stimulus package promised to funnel billions of dollars directly into the coffers of states, leaving mayors wondering about their role.
As the frustration mounted, some began grumbling about their White House contact, Valerie Jarrett. “They were starting to get the sense, starting to comment that maybe Valerie Jarrett isn’t the person to bring their concerns to the highest level of the White House,” said Michael Strautmanis, Jarrett’s chief of staff.
They soon learned otherwise.
Before long, Jarrett hosted a forum for more than 80 mayors in the White House East Room, where she moderated a discussion with five Cabinet secretaries who explained how the stimulus plan would help cities. The event last month was capped by remarks from both the vice president and the president. Spotting a once-skeptical mayor after the session, Strautmanis could not resist flicking a little jab. “What do you think of Valerie Jarrett now?” he asked.
Jarrett, 52, serves as senior adviser to the president, and she oversees the Office of Public Liaison and Intergovernmental Affairs. She is the principal contact for groups wanting to reach the White House, a stated focus of an administration that prides itself on transparency and outreach to an unprecedented array of grass-roots organizations. Jarrett and her staff have organized meetings and events that bring 450 people a week to the White House. She also recommends and interviews people for top jobs in the administration, is a daily presence in the president’s senior staff meetings, and is someone Obama often calls on for a reality check.
But Jarrett’s array of titles and duties fail to convey the breadth of her influence, which is rooted in a long relationship built on a foundation of trust with the Obamas.
“First, you look to her judgment and instincts about people,” said first lady Michelle Obama, describing Jarrett’s attributes. “You want to know, ‘What do you think? What’s your read?’ The other part for me is knowledge of the president. She knows her boss. She knows his values. She knows his intent. She provides a very trusted link to the outside community. People who deal with her can trust that, number one, she has access, and also, that she has knowledge.”
Jarrett’s relationship with the Obamas was launched nearly 18 years ago, when she interviewed the future first lady — then Michelle Robinson, a promising but discontented intellectual-property lawyer — for a job at Chicago City Hall. Jarrett, then Democratic Mayor Richard M. Daley’s deputy chief of staff, was impressed, and she offered a job virtually on the spot. But Robinson would not take it until Jarrett met her fiance, Barack Obama.
Not long after that, the three went to dinner, where, largely at Obama’s prompting, they talked about their backgrounds and values, which they found to be similar. “Valerie is someone I immediately connected with,” the first lady said. “I really felt safe in her presence. She is someone that I trust implicitly.”
As it happens, crucial elements of Jarrett’s and the Obamas’ biographies overlapped. Like the Obamas, Jarrett had lived in Hyde Park on the city’s South Side. Like Mrs. Obama, she had soured on working in a private law firm to take a lower-paying job in public service, starting out in the administration of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor.
An unconventional childhood is another trait she shares with the president. She was born in Shiraz, Iran, where her father, a Howard University-trained geneticist and pathologist, worked as a doctor. Jarrett has said that when her family settled in Chicago, her background initially left her with no intuitive sense of the challenges she would face because she is black, as in Iran she was viewed only as an American. Only later did she full appreciate the burdens of race, an experience she shares with the president.
The common threads helped knit a bond between Jarrett and the Obamas, which only grew tighter over many dinners and family vacations. To this day, her parents live just two blocks from the Obamas’ Hyde Park home. For years, Jarrett served as a mentor, helping Obama forge the connections that helped launch his political career, even as her own career flourished. Jarrett has served as Chicago planning commissioner and as president and chief executive of the Habitat Company, a Chicago real estate management firm. She also has sat on numerous boards, including that of the University of Chicago Medical Center, the Chicago Stock Exchange, the Chicago Transit Authority and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.
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